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From Chaos to Clarity of Purpose

November 17, 2013

Circles Do you like a world that’s orderly, where at work you know what’s about to hit you–basically a predictable environment?

Or do prefer the unknown, never quite sure what each day will bring, and not just at work but your personal and family time?

I’m reminded me of the Bob Newhart TV episode where Bob and his wife, Joanne, are going to take an impromptu vacation. Joanne discovers Bob secretly planning the trip in the middle of the night. I plead guilty! My wife, Sue, of 36 years is far more spontaneous than I–though I have improved in old age.

On a serious note, especially as it relates to how we react to unforeseen and largely anticipated events, the ability to become change agents is one of the greatest competencies each of us can development.

This is serious stuff. Why?

For example, Gen Y is getting hammered due to corporate downsizing, offshoring to countries that are hungry to succeed and technology advancements in communication. Older workers are facing the same, though in a different personal context. The one common skill you can develop and continually strengthen is that of being open to change and not attached to a particular outcome, to paraphrase consultant and author Angeles Arrien of the superb book The Fourfold Way.

British management thinker Charles Handy talked many years ago of “Discontinuous Change,” that change happens in unpredictable bursts. Others since then, including Nicholas Taleb approached the topic from another angle, using the Black Swan metaphor. But my favorite is Handy and his down to earth explanation on dealing with relentless, unpredictable change.

Let’s face it, organizations are messy beasts. They’re constantly evolving to the latest management fad or the new CEO’s vision of the future. It doesn’t matter whether the CEO or president has it right; he or she probably doesn’t. If you work in the public or non-profit sectors, the same applies. As an employee, be prepared for things to go off the rails. Be ready for the “We weren’t planning for that event” response from senior management. Or the whoops moment due to taking one’s eye off the ball.

Rocks In contrast to conventional thinking, working in a volatile environment can be both exciting and mentally stimulating, the latter providing resume-building experience. My later-in-life experience lends itself to venturing into the unknown. However, I would encourage young people to not follow the Baby Boomer risk-averse approach. Indeed, more young people are creating their own businesses compared to Gen X and especially Baby Boomers.

The evolving and often messy management structures in which people often work, typically masquerading for participative leadership, are a turn-off to the human condition. Yet we keep coming back for more. Boomers linger in the labor force for a variety of reasons, including financial and an ingrained sense of needing to be wanted. Gen X is steadily working its way up a management ladder created a century ago, one reinforced by Baby Boomers who obediently followed their parents. Gen X just wants Boomers to retire and to get out of the way. Please!!

Gen Y was devastated by the 2008-09 Great Recession and financial meltdown, and trying to figure out where it sits in a world of upheaval and mounting global competition. All the while dealing with massive student loan debts. This was not the storyline to which they subscribed.

As Rafael Gomez, associate professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto, puts it bluntly: “It just took that final knockout punch of the Great Recession to tilt everything away from easy progression up the socio-economic ladder for new labor market entrants or for someone who had lost a job in a displaced industry.”

Whether you consider the near-insane behavior of the U.S. Congress on the debt ceiling versus Obama Care, Canada’s accident-prone Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a wide variety of issues, or Blackberry’s attempts to ward off an imminent death, rational behavior eventually emerges. As citizens in democratic countries, we tend to lose sight of how messy democracy can be. And the same applies to the private sector. The alternative is either a complete state-run economy, of which that story had a very bad ending (eg, former Soviet Union), or the yet-to-be-concluded state-run capitalism (read China), to which I personally as an economist harbor serious reservations.

The beauty of un-predetermined results is the concept of being open to outcome, and which is accompanied by quickly adapting to the change. And from this will emerge the true purpose.

If you’re not familiar with the work of Angeles Arrien, be sure to check her out. Arrien’s concepts have stuck with me for some 15 years; I’m confident you’ll find her work of great help.


Don’t let the past stand in the way of your future.

– Charles Handy


Workforce of the Future Footer CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Workforce of the Future: Building Change Adaptability, 2nd Edition.


Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim TaggartTake a moment to meet Jim.

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